Burning Coal Theatre
Through Jan. 22
Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte’s 2002 drama, Mary’s Wedding, is an improbable artistic marriage itself. It’s a fantastical tale anchored to the grim historical fate of the soldiers who led the last recorded cavalry charge, at the end of World War I. It fuses a sentimental plot, lifted from a 19th-century George du Maurier novel, with a twist of Kurt Vonnegut. But mostly, Mary’s Wedding is a romantic tearjerker (whose effectiveness was audible in the house when I saw it) that still strives to critique the romanticism at its base.
Its two loversCharlie, a farmboy whose passion for horses ultimately puts him in the Canadian mounted regiments, and Mary, a recent upper-class émigré from Englandare separated by an ocean and a war, and may only meet each other in a dream. Still, for one of these lovers, the most important outcome is that the other finally awaken and then dream that dream no more.
The war poets of the period, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, had a similar goal, of course; to rouse a world from its comforting but toxic dreams of gloried conflict. Among Massicotte’s early, and excessive, efforts at foreshadowing, Charlie and Mary quote Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Lady of Shalott” to one another before they find themselves squarely in the circumstances of those poems. At those points, romantic verse offers little consolation and no assistance for the realities they have to face.
At first, Massicotte’s pacing seems far too brisk; mere moments separate the pair’s first meeting (in a thunderstorm that repeatedly portends the explosions of artillery) and Charlie’s disembarking for battle in Europe. But shortly after that we learn the degree to which our lovers, much like Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim, have become unstuck in time. In both worlds, the shrapnel of ordnance doesn’t just obliterate flesh and bone; it shatters time and space itself.
In the resulting chaos of overlapping jigsaw pieces, Mary and Charlie segue, without warning, from a fusty Sunday tea into No Man’s Land. On the streets of their provincial Canadian village, they share a letter she’s just receivedone that Charlie’s just posted, in the future, from the trenches at the front. After he kills his first enemy soldier, Mary suddenly offers succor in a starlit wheat field back home, the year before. Sometimes these transits are functionally ambiguous; elsewhere, they either leave us nonplussed or with narrative whiplash.
Under Joshua Benjamin’s direction, Caitlin Davis’ Mary is crisp and engaging; her demure attraction and concerns are mainly evidenced in telling physical grace notes. But when Benjamin directs her to basically make no audible or visible transition upon “becoming” Flowerdew, the commanding officer who repeatedly tries to shelter Charlie from the worst out in the field, the result is somewhat flatter than the masked interchanges between characters that could have been explored.
Matthew Hager’s straightforward take on Charlie benefits from the director’s energetic pacing. And despite Massicotte’s seeming injunction against romanticism, Benjamin’s actors convey an adrenal thrill in the regiment’s historic charge on horseback across the German line. That exuberance is tempered by far more somber testimony elsewhere.
Yes, an abundance of obvious stage portents in Massicotte’s script become well worn with repetition, and a work so critical of romanticism probably shouldn’t close with the mawkish image that is projected on the back of Curt Tomczyk’s atmospheric set. Still, this production effectively notes that when a romantic ideal goes astray in a life and a world, a cost must be paid. By the end of Mary’s Wedding, we know: When a dream proves false, it’s essential that we wake one another up.